Before we hear our text this morning, I'd like to drop back for a minute and think again about what the Bible is and why we bother reading it together. This is the holy record of one particular people's experience of God in their individual and corporate lives, as they interpret and reinterpret God's presence and actions in their situations. Over the course of thousands of years, Christians have accepted it as an authority for our individual and corporate life. We continue to be inspired by it and to find in it wisdom that guides us into becoming the people we believe God is calling us to be. We know that each of these books was created in a specific time and place and that it meant something to it's original audience. This morning we are going to hear a word of prophecy from Isaiah. Isaiah is a long book that spans the time before, during and after the Exile to Babylon. Words of warning before the Exile, words of comfort during the Exile, words of reassurance after the return from Exile. That information helps us interpret the text with integrity, but knowing the history isn't our end goal. Our goal is always to discover what the text says about our history. How do we, individually and together, experience the truth of these words in our lives? This morning's text was a word for a people in Exile and is a word for anyone who is waiting, as we all are during Advent. For the ancient Hebrews in Exile, the worst thing has happened and the question is, "Now what?" Do we still have a purpose on this earth? On this third week of Advent, we wonder, "Is joy possible? And if so, how?"
"Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading from Isaiah 42
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
“I am the Lord; that is my name!
I will not yield my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you.”
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the ends of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it,
you islands, and all who live in them.
Let the wilderness and its towns raise their voices;
let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice.
Let the people of Sela sing for joy;
let them shout from the mountaintops.
Let them give glory to the Lord
and proclaim his praise in the islands.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
A couple weeks ago I saw this video on Facebook about a neurosurgeon who dances with his patients. Has anyone else seen this? It's adorable. This young black man is a pediatric neurosurgery physician's assistant in Orange County and when he comes into the room, he comes in dancing. And it works. It doesn't matter what level of mobility the patient has; one girl is flat on her back in a hospital bed but she can move her head from side to side, and she joins him in dancing. Soon these patients are grinning and comfortable, and in that moment they are actually feeling better.
Now this doesn't come as a shock to us. We all know that we are whole people, and that we can't separate our physical, emotional and spiritual selves. The worst time of my life, a time of deep depression and crippling spiritual darkness, was brought on by a prolonged physical illness. There is a strong connection between our bodies, our minds, and our spirits (or however you categorize the parts of you). However, sometimes in church, we forget this, or at least we act like it's not true. Especially in churches that look like ours, and I'm talking about our physical space and our demographics. So this morning, I'd like for us to think together about the connection between our bodies and spirits. For a moment just notice your physical posture. Don't change it; just notice it. Are you slouched or tall? Are you comfortable or tight? Are your arms crossed or are you open?
In this Advent season of waiting, we can also think about our spiritual posture. Grounded in hope based on our expectation of God's good future, Strong in peace based on our realization that there is nowhere else we need to be since God will use us right where we are. And free to move in joy. Let's define it. How would we define joy? ... Let me share with you what I found this week after lots of reading, joy is "grace recognized." Joy is our response to when we recognize that grace is present and active in our lives.
When I researched the word joy in the Scriptures, I found something very interesting in both the Hebrew and the Greek. In both languages, the noun joy comes from a verb meaning to rejoice. The verb is the root of the noun, which means the action comes first. Joy the thing, the concept, arises from the action of rejoicing. And in Greek the word joy has the same root as the word grace. Our joy results from the deliberate action of recognizing grace. And our response to that is in our actions, in our bodies.
Let's take that apart a little more. Grace is favor or kindness. As Christians we believe that all good things come from God because God IS goodness, so anytime we experience kindness or favor we are experiencing God. God is gracious, which means that God favors us already and we do absolutely nothing to earn it. Whatever state we are in, God already loves us as much as God ever could. God has our best interests at heart and is in the business of redeeming our suffering and ultimately restoring all of creation, even if that takes a long, long time. Grace is the opposite of shame; grace affirms that you are worthy of love and dignity simply because you are made in God's image. Grace says that the worst thing you've ever done isn't the last word about you. Grace says the worst thing that's ever been done to you doesn't define who you are. Grace is the best news ever for every single person and all of us together. And grace wins every time.
Joy is our response to THAT. Not simply our cognitive understanding that there's a word spelled g-r-a-c-e and it has this particular theological meaning. Joy is our embodied reaction to the recognition of how and when and where grace is present and active in each of our lives, in our congregation, and in our world. Joy is an active response. We feel it, we say it, we sing it, we move it, we do it. Joy is not only emotional or spiritual, joy is physical.
The ancient Hebrews in today's text knew this. In the midst of their experience of Exile, of being taken away from their homeland, they still recognized grace. Their experience of judgment had not negated their calling to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. God chose them, was upholding them and delighted in them: that's grace. God says that their time of judgment, of experiencing the consequences of their choices, was coming to an end. New things are ahead: that's grace. And the people responded by singing to the Lord a new song. Their response to recognizing grace was to sing for joy, to praise, to roar, to shout, to declare, to give glory.
How do we respond to grace recognized? Are we joyful? It is clear that God is doing something new HERE, that together we are being renewed, we are recognizing grace. So the question is, are we going to respond to God's new thing with tired old stuff, or are we going to allow ourselves the freedom to sing a new song? Thank God for our traditions. I love tradition. But I believe that God is calling this church to find a way to embrace both tradition and freedom.
Now we could get caught up in arguing about what kind of music we should have. Lots of churches get stuck there. Churches even split over that. But I'm asking you a deeper question this morning: are you free? That's the spiritual issue. That's what's really at stake here. Are we free? When we are together, are we free to respond to grace recognized in whatever expression of joy lifts our souls? Are we free from a need to control and judge others whose worship looks different from ours? Are we practicing a joyful response when we are together? When people walk into this room, can they SEE our joy and do they feel free to express their own joy?
Joy expressed openly is contagious. When Mary recognizes grace in her life and has a joyful response and I see that, I recognize that grace in her life and share in her joy and it helps me recognize grace in my own life and have another joyful response to that. Which prompts Sam's to recognize grace joyfully respond, which prompts Dave ... do you see what I mean? And while the emotional level of response is going to be different from person to person, the actual visible response is very important. If we recognize grace but then tamp down any kind of actual, physical response to it, we keep others from recognizing grace and we miss out on our calling of being blessed to be a blessing.
This is a matter of our testimony as a congregation. When people come into this room for the first time and participate in our worship, are they seeing and experiencing an embodied response to grace? Are we making space in our tradition for JOY? Are we reading our call to worship and our prayers like <wanh wanh wanh wanh wanh> or do our tones of voice and our volume make it clear that we are responding to grace recognized? Are we singing only stiff old songs, or are physically demonstrating our joy as we sing new songs that describe our new experiences of grace? Joy is fun. Which means whenever and wherever we are gathered we should feel free and joyful. If we don't, it's because either we aren't recognizing grace or we aren't responding to it with our whole selves. The invitation is to be whole people: body, mind and spirit, wholly responding with joy.
God is good and all of creation is on a trajectory towards restoration. We live in hope. We have a role to play in that restoration and God is going to use us exactly where we are. We are at peace. God's kindness and favor and grace are present and active all around us. We experience joy. This is Advent and Jesus is coming. Amen.